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New York stories of a proud J-1er


LIFE LESSONS IN THE US: Dearbhail McDonald’s diary and various mementoes from her J-1 experience in the summer of 1999

LIFE LESSONS IN THE US: Dearbhail McDonald’s diary and various mementoes from her J-1 experience in the summer of 1999

David Conachy

LIFE LESSONS IN THE US: Dearbhail McDonald’s diary and various mementoes from her J-1 experience in the summer of 1999

I was 22 when I fell in love for the very first time. It was the summer of 1999 and 16 years later, with countless relapses in between, I'm still completely smitten.

My love affair with New York City has been one of the most unconditional, enduring and rewarding relationships in my personal and professional life - it was living in New York during the 9/11 terrorist attacks that led me out of law and into journalism.

But New York might never have been were it not for the J-1 Visa exchange programme.

The J-1 has seen generations of Irish students - more than 150,000 so far - cross the Atlantic to America each summer for an experience that has marked our lives in more ways than we dared imagine.

The onslaught last week on the J-1 programme by the New York Times would have caused offence on any given day. The controversial article declared the J-1 programme as "not just a source of aspiration, but a source of embarrassment for Ireland, marked by a series of high-profile episodes involving drunken partying and the wrecking of apartments".

But its delivery, mere hours after the tragic and needless deaths of six Irish students in Berkeley - inviting readers to infer that the young people were in some way responsible for the collapse of an apartment balcony that led to their deaths - is unforgiveable.

The unrelenting response to the "second-day story" by former president of Ireland Mary McAleese correctly called out the lazy, tabloid stereotype of the Irish by what is arguably the world's most influential media organ.

Mary McAleese, a president emeritus, as it were - despite stepping down after two terms as president in 2011 - not for the first time, spoke for many when she said the New York Times should hang its head in shame at how "outrageously and without the remotest evidence it has rushed to judgment on those deaths".

For its part, the New York Times has apologised for its "insensitive language" used in such close proximity to the tragedy and said it was never its intention to blame the victims.

Its public editor, Margaret Sullivan - whose office fielded hundreds of complaints about the depiction of Irish J-1 students as extreme partiers - agreed that many of the complaints she received in relation to the article were valid.

But the paper's offensive reportage is still online for all to see.

The sense of loss following the Berkeley apartment collapse is, as Ireland's impressive Consul General in San Francisco, Philip Grant, has observed, universal. That is, in part, because we live in a small country that is really a village, where degrees of separation are minute and where we don't have to look too far to establish some class of a personal connection to the families of the dead and injured, some still fighting for their lives.

But the outpouring of grief is also palpable and universal because Olivia Burke, Eoghan Culligan, Niccolai Schuster, Lorcan Miller and Eimear Walsh - as well as their Irish-American friend Ashley Donohoe - embodied the hopes and dreams of all our young people, their parents and their communities.

The J-1 is a distinctly Irish rite-of-passage: we send more students to the US on J-1 visas than any other country in the world. In the aftermath of the Berkeley tragedy and the New York Times J-1 slur, I tried to explain to the BBC last week the magical draw of the J-1 for the Irish and why the fatal balcony collapse - during a 21st birthday party - has caused such a national outpouring of grief.

As I prepared for the interview, I dusted down a diary of my own J-1 experience in New York in the summer of 1999.

I thought I would never get there: flat broke, a friend and I had spent the previous summer working in Dublin.

Once a week, on our day off, we travelled to a different stop on Dublin's Dart line because we couldn't afford to go to America or Interrail around Europe. We dubbed the weekly escapades to places as diverse as Dalkey, Killester and Howth Junction "inter-darting" and sent postcards to friends in the US to prove that a lot could be achieved with a big smile and a tiny budget.

But we were sick with envy and determined, before my final year in law at Trinity College ended, to undergo the J-1 rite-of-passage that so many of our peers had experienced.

I'll never forget the spontaneous clapping and cheers that broke out on our Aer Lingus flight as JFK came into view, all the J-1ers waving our passports in the air ecstatically as the jet's tyres hit the tarmac on June 14, 1999.

The elation of our arrival in the Free World was quickly replaced by the stress of finding accommodation in the city that never sleeps, our feet worn out from pounding the streets of Manhattan looking for a roof over our heads and a job to pay the rent when we found one.

My diary, which I would be mortified to show to anyone now, contains all the paraphernalia of a young person on their first adventure in faraway climes.

I dutifully kept the Metro subway cards, the $10 phone cards to ring home, ticket stubs from the now fallen Twin Towers and the railway tickets for the weekends we worked tirelessly on Long Island Sound.

I had completely forgotten, but The Blair Witch Project was the movie sensation that summer, and I blush at the early 20s angst over the summer love whose name I had almost forgotten, too.

I spent those months, if my diary is to be believed, writing a treatise on New York's subway rats, and almost broke my ankle trying to learn to dance 'trip hop' style after a brush with exuberance led me to get a set of Afro-style cornrow braids on my head that I've never, ever lived down.

I also complained bitterly every week when the Irish bar manager (sadly, now dead) where I worked in Manhattan confiscated my wages, leaving me to survive on my tips.

I railed against the injustice, but the docking of my wages paid for my rent in my final year at Trinity.

We partied, for sure, as young people do. And my diary records many social events, including a notable success of securing a meal at 3am at the drive-thru window of a Burger King outlet in Boston - we were walking at the time, much to the bemusement of the cars in front and behind us.

But we worked so bloody hard, too, with one particularly hormonal entry complaining that trying to save money in New York is "cruel and ruthless".

We also used the limited time we had on our J-1s to further our fledgling career paths and try to make connections that would stand the test of time, which, in many cases, they have.

It was in New York, as in all parts of the US, that we learned the value of networking. It was there that we got caught up in the American Dream, a mirage in some respects. But we returned home with less of the begrudgery that, as a country, we sometimes bear, and instilled with a belief that we could succeed regardless of our baggage or backgrounds.

We learned so much about culture - American and so many others that live side-by-side in the melting pot that is New York. Our J-1 cultural guide might offend the New York Times: we were informed that Americans don't tolerate nudity in public (who does?), can be very rude (they can seem to be), and that ignorance about life outside of the US is widely common (it was).

But it was nothing compared to the cultural shock you got when innocently asking a US citizen had they any craic, raising alarm that Ireland's brightest and best were, in fact, peddling cocaine and heroin during their summer sojourn.

Most importantly of all, J-1ers are ambassadors.

Ambassadors for ourselves, our families and our country.

Young emissaries on a special mission to achieve their individual potentials, J-1 students are plenipotentiaries vested with their own power to earn, learn and return home with new insights and experiences to enrich us all.

That is why we mourn the Berkeley dead, why our grief is both personal and universal.

We mourn the tragic loss of their potential and how they may have changed our lives with their life-changing J-1 experience.

Sunday Independent